IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 125 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Anastasia Steele is a journalism major at Vancouver University in Washington state. She goes to the Grey House building to interview the mysterious CEO of Grey Enterprises, Christian Grey in place of her sick roommate Kate Kavanagh. She finds herself immediately attracted to the somewhat remote and mysterious man. Some days later, Christian poses for a photo shoot by Anastasia’s friend Jose, who has feelings for her. Christian proceeds to show up at both the hardware shop where she works and outside a nightclub where Anastasia has drunk far too much and passes out into Christian’s arms, after which she awakes in his private condo. Despite a mutual attraction, it seems that Christian isn’t into what can be described as ‘normal’ relationships….
I supposed I should say right away that I haven’t read E. L. James’ novel, the book that supposedly caused loads of women to lose their inhibitions…or something. As soon as I learnt that it began life as Twilight fan fiction I made up my mind not to read it. The general opinion seems to be that it’s extremely explicit but very poorly written. The film version seems to be a case, which happens every now and again, of a big commercial success that loads of people have gone to see but that few people seem to actually have liked [unless it’s just that they won’t admit it]. Frankly, even if you’re into BDSM [an overlapping of Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, and Sadism and Masochism, in case you weren’t sure] I would imagine that it’s a pretty tedious experience. In fact, some practioners of BDSM are objecting to the fact that the film seems to imply that if you’re into BDSM you must have had an abusive childhood, though the dark background of Christian Grey, one of the few genuinely interesting things about the story, remains largely unexplored. I guess that the two sequels [well, there are two book sequels, and the film is already a box office smash, so I reckon we may get them] will delve deeper into this.
In any case, Fifty Shades Of Grey is a mostly dreary effort that doesn’t even really deliver the goods sexually. Our couple meet in the very first scene, and after a few minutes I would have thought that any sane person would feel like screaming at Anastasia to avoid this guy who comes across as a controlling creep almost immediately. After all, she has another admirer who seems a perfectly decent chap. However, Anastasia can’t stop herself being drawn more and more to Christian, even when he says he says he’s not into stuff like hearts and flowers and just likes to “**** hard”. He won’t even share a bed with a girl, and Anastasia is a virgin, so Christian, even though he’s already shown Anastasia his ‘playroom’, is kind enough to have sex with her the ‘normal’ way before he gets to tie her up, beat her and put her in a swing. The dramatic conflict of the story, such as it is, becomes mainly about Anastasia being unable to really decide whether she really want the kind of relationship Christian wants, and whether she can emotionally ‘reach’ her cold lover.
The first romp is a bit longer and more explicit than you tend to get in mainstream movies today [ in fact we don’t get much sex at all currently in films, at a time where violence seems to be getting stronger, at least in terms of what is acceptable for a particular age rating]. However, the bondage etc. stuff later on is mostly very tame – in fact you never even see any wound marks on Anastasia. Of course there’s no way they could have been as graphic as the book, especially knowing how strict the American ’R’ rating tends to be on sexual material, but they could have still gone further than they did – what decent erotic film do you know that actually gets far tamer as it goes on? Perhaps even worse, none of the sex or sex-related activity has any sexual charge – in fact some of it’s rather amusing – something not helped by the fact that the two lead performers have no chemistry whatsoever despite Dakota Fanning’s over the top looks of lust in the early scenes. I do disagree with some who claim the film shows true abuse or rape though. Christian makes it clear more than once that if Anastasia objects to something, he will not do it or stop.
So that’s the sex, what’s the story like? It’s the familiar tale of a woman who finds herself falling for someone who keeps at bay his emotions, done without any intelligence or depth [no surprise there, considering both the source material and the fact that the screenwriter is Saving Mr. Banks’ Kelly Marcel], along with some pointless filler involving the families of Anastasia and Christian. It’s tediously stretched out – you could lose over half an hour of this film – and the manner of the tale’s birth soon become very obvious as the film does the Twilight thing of repeating the same damn scene over and over again, with little variation. Christian and Anastasia go on and on about rules and what sort of relationship they’re in. Time and time we’re told how cold and disturbed Christian is and how Anastasia enjoys what he subjects her to but really wants a more normal relationship. For God’s sake, we get the point. There are times when the film really does seem like it was made for idiots, but much of it is just plain dull too, and I don’t think that saying that it’s for women rather than men excuses it. I enjoy, and if I don’t then I can often still appreciate, quite a few films classed as ’women’s pictures’, though I hate these kinds of generalisations anyway.
Now of course it’s not all bad. The film is really well photographed and lit, Seamus McGavey often using various colours well from scene to scene. Danny Elfman’s mostly low-key [though it has some slightly intrusive comedic cues] score, largely relying on piano, is interesting and avoids the usual cliches you get in scores for sex-themed movies, though sadly you also get a pop song annoyingly inserted every few minutes, or so it seems. Dakota Fanning, for the most part, succeeds in making partly convincing her character’s emotional journey, even if it’s a character dreamt up by what seems like a teenager’s sexual fantasies who therefore doesn’t seem actually believable at all. Sadly Jamie Dornan is astonishingly bland, never really conveying the many aspects of his character which does have its intriguing aspects and could have worked if a decent actor had played him. His American accent is worse than that awful English one once atttempted by Keanu Reeves. Then again, most actors would struggle with some of the godawful dialogue Christian is given. “I’m fifty shades of ****ed up”, he says at one point. Not as ****ed up as the fact that this tripe is making loads of money though.
It’s definitely possible to make a good film about this subject. The James Spader/Maggie Gyllenhall starrer Secretary, which is both intelligent and genuinely erotic [despite showing little sex], is proof of that, but even 9 ½ Weeks is probably deeper as well as more entertaining than Fifty Shades Of Grey. It’s a pretty lousy, pathetic movie that isn’t anywhere near as interesting as it might at first seem and is just not really worth any fuss, though it does show the power of hype, and maybe its success could result in some good. It could inspire some other studios and filmmakers to make some erotic movies, some that are actually good.